Friday, March 25, 2005

Civics Education In Today's Schools 

Charles Quigley, Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education, reported in a presentation last year that the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test of 12th graders in the subject of civics and government in 1998 showed that only 25% scored in the proficient range. I can attest to these findings. In recent years I have lectured on the subject to students in a Washington, D.C. charter high school focusing on public policy, to a political science class at George Mason University, through a distance learning course on the media and the presidency hosted by C-Span and taught to students at the University of Denver, and to my own daughter's government class in Fairfax County, Virginia. In all cases I found that our country's children are lacking in a basic understanding of the principals upon which our nation was founded.

The significance of this knowledge gap in now influencing the level of discourse regarding public policy issues we are confronting in America today. For example, while the sad case of Terri Schiavo has raised the issues of federalism and when it is right to end a human life, I have seen almost no one point out that the fact that Congress passed a law targeted toward a single individual, an act which is explicitly forbidden in the U.S. Constitution. This is called a "Bill of Attainer" and Article 1 Section 3 states that "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed." The matter could not be as black and white as this and yet the President, the House of Representatives, and the Senate all went along with the legislation although all take an oath of office in which they swear that they will uphold and defend our founding document.

I could share many other examples of disconnect between our debate on important issues of the day and America's democratic ideals. The issue first came to mind as I followed the debate surrounding the use of private school vouchers for students to attend parochial schools. Many people are opposed to this suggestion because they believe it violates the separation of church and state inferred in our Bill of Rights. But no matter what your position on school choice, it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding regarding Article 1 to try and use it to stop the implementation of these programs.

Article 1 says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." It was included in our Bill of Rights because at the time of our Country's founding the English government and the Anglican Church were not separate entities. During this period monies paid to either organization automatically supported the other. This is what Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason were trying to correct. Does providing scholarship money to students to attend a religious school circumvent their efforts? Not according to five members of the Supreme Court:

"There also is no evidence that the program fails to provide genuine opportunities for Cleveland parents to select secular educational options for their school-age children. Cleveland schoolchildren enjoy a range of educational choices: They may remain in public school as before, remain in public school with publicly funded tutoring aid, obtain a scholarship and choose a religious school, obtain a scholarship and choose a nonreligious private school, enroll in a community school, or enroll in a magnet school. That 46 of the 56 private schools now participating in the program are religious schools does not condemn it as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause question is whether Ohio is coercing parents into sending their children to religious schools, and that question must be answered by evaluating all options Ohio provides Cleveland schoolchildren, only one of which is to obtain a program scholarship and then choose a religious school." (Zelman V. Simmons-Harris, p 13-14).

It should not take the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to write this opinion. A high school student equipped with a solid grasp of the first 10 Amendments to our Constitution can come to the same reasoned conclusion. Just think about all the time, money and other resources that could have been saved by an understanding of the Establishment Clause. (The amount of resources used to win the Zelman case is documented in Clint Bolick's excellent 1993 book Voucher Wars.)

The Center for Civic Education quotes remarks by Thomas Jefferson on the need for civics education,

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."

This is not a matter to be taken lightly. The future survival of our 229 year experiment in democracy may just be dependent on teaching civics to our kids.

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